Rivka Galchen: “Appreciation” from The New Yorker, 3/19/12

New Yorker art by Stephanie Pierce

New Yorker art by Stephanie Pierce

From 2007 to 2011, the daughter put $170,000 into savings, $25,000 went into a SEP-IR. A., $9,000 went into a Roth I. R. A., and the remainder was placed into a money-market fund. Other money went, as the mother might put it, into the hands of petty charlatans who didn’t make it into law or medical school and whose parents, with their valueless American values, never taught them anything, poor things, actually, poor things. Or it went, as others might put it, into the hands of venders of artisanal chocolates and ninety-dollar T-shirts.

Right off the bat, let me highly recommend the Book Bench interview Willing Davis conducts with author Rivka Galchen, in which the questions are as illuminating as the answers: “I really like how you’ve made a narrative out of disparate parts, the way elements rub up against each other to create a story. When you’re writing something that’s not a traditional narrative, how do you ensure that resonances will come through? More specifically, what gave you the confidence that the mother’s story of her real-estate brokering would juxtapose so nicely with the story to that point?”

I was intimidated by the first sentence of this story, packed as it is with financial data, but it soon transitioned, as you can see in the second paragraph quoted above, into more typical material. Still, it is a story of a mother-daughter relationship viewed through the lens of their financial experiences.

One moment that still sticks with me occurs after we learn how Mom has done a great job giving Daughter every opportunity to be in a position to buy artisanal chocolates and ninety-dollar T-shirts, and while Daughter has been thrifty and reasonable in most arenas (excepting those maternal hot-button issues like Daughter’s separation from her husband and her childlessness), she’s lost some perspective:

The daughter said, All you care about is money and weight, and you give me all this advice; but I’m thinner than you and I make more money than you.

It’s a very effective moment, though it requires the background of the story to appreciate it. I’ve never been a mother, but I’ve been a daughter, and while I laughed at Mom sometimes in this story, I felt guilty when I read the above line. I think I once said something similar to my father; I suspect most middle-class kids have said something similar to their parents, because that is, after all, the goal of parenting, to bring one’s kids to better circumstances than oneself, and thus, ironically, leave oneself open to their superiority. This jibes with Galchen’s intent: “I knew the story would only work if the mother was, on some deep level, the more appealing character. I hope that’s the way the story reads.” Yes, it is, though Mom has her comic catastrophes, particularly in a hellish encounter with Jenny Craig.

I enjoyed the voice in the beginning of the story; it seemed to peter out a bit as things went on. But it picks up again in a pitch-perfect last paragraph:

But you have to stop confusing things. That’s why you come to the wrong conclusions.Because you start in the wrong place. By then you’re not really even talking about what you’re talking about, the daughter went on, not really sure what she herself was talking about, and realizing that she had lost track of precisely what it was that she was trying to estimate justly, and why she had imagined that she could.

This brings me back to the opening Book Bench interview question by Willing Davidson: “This story hinges on a pun, or a duality—that ‘appreciation’ can be used in a financial as well as a kind of moral sense.” This story effectively juxtaposes and interweaves that duality; not perfectly, perhaps, but well.

4 responses to “Rivka Galchen: “Appreciation” from The New Yorker, 3/19/12

  1. Pingback: Rivka Galchen–”Appreciation” (New Yorker, March 19, 2012) « I Just Read About That…

  2. Some of what you’ve said is what I’ve been getting at — first lines and last lines are so, so important on establishing and/or justifying what an author is attempting to do. This Wallace-like non-linear–data-as-story technique certainly has the tendency to get too technical, to drone, to peter out, or to lead to diminishing returns — but the fact that Galchen is able to tie this financial relationship together with that final paragraph makes the rest of it hold together, a deliberate choice that sticks with you more than other endings, which too often *literally* peter out, with nothing more to be said, and no real way to tie a “slice of life” together.

  3. Pingback: Rivka Galchen: “The Lost Order” from TNY, 1/7/13 | A Just Recompense

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